Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Countryside Agency

  Thank you for your letter following up on the supplementary notes promised at our recent appearance before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The full notes are annexed to this letter but are summarised below. I am sorry that this has taken so long, but I wanted to bring your Committee good news about progress towards better definitions of what "rural" is (see Annex 1).

  In addition, you have identified a number of questions on the original brief which the committee were unable to reach:

i.  "Were the promised `improved programme monitoring and evaluation arrangements' and `improved financial management and monitoring systems' in place by April this year?"

ii.  "Was the external appraisal team introduced on time?"

  In April this year we moved to formal quarterly reporting for each programme area in which progress against clearly articulated outputs and against programme budget forecasts is set out. Corrective action is taken where necessary. Each quarterly report is reviewed by the Agency's Executive and, subsequently, the Agency Board at the earliest opportunity. I enclose a copy of the latest (October) report to our Board (see Annex 2).

  In addition our new financial management system, CAMIS (Countryside Agency Management Information System), was introduced in April 2001 having been researched, designed and implemented within a six month period. This new system is already beginning to deliver benefits with respect to financial management and control.

  Our new programme evaluation framework will be implemented from April 2002. This is a little later than originally planned, but it seemed right to allow the new range of programmes to bed in sufficiently for the evaluation to be useful. The framework will allow the Agency to measure the impact of programmes and evaluate programme success in achieving their outcomes as set out in our Corporate Plan. The principle behind our approach will be to ensure an arm's length management of the evaluation and some independent assessment of the programme's success. This programme evaluation complements our in-year monitoring process by measuring impact (outcomes) as opposed to outputs.

iii.  "Have you produced detailed business plans for each programme on activity?"

  Yes. Business plans for each programme area were developed in the spring of 2001 and took effect on the 1st April 2001. We have already produced draft business plans for a second year to take effect for the period April 2002 to March 2003. In undertaking the second round of business plans we refined the process and structure for our business planning to create even more sharply defined outputs and to provide clearer accounting for the resources required to deliver the outputs.


(a)  The definition of "rural"

  The question of what is rural has long been an elusive one. The Agency has used a series of definitions usually driven more by the availability of date rather than scientific analysis.

  We are currently working with DTLR, DEFRA and ONS on a DTLR-led project to research better definitions of "rural". However, we are not satisfied with the progress being made towards defining an acceptable single definition and are doing more to drive this forward. We have just concluded an agreement with DEFRA and ONS to use the working Agency definitions. We will be pushing for an immediate start to produce a clear and simple definition for use by all government bodies.

(b)  The PFI SPIRIT Contract (see Annex 3)

  The business case for the Agency's PFI Partnership with IBM to provide our IT infrastructure and managed services (the SPIRIT project) was submitted to our sponsoring department (then the DETR) in 1997. It anticipated savings of around £201,000 per annum on IS/IT staffing costs, as four posts would be removed from our staff complement and another IS/IT running costs (such as hardware and software maintenance contracts). These savings were realised.

  The business case also noted that the outsourcing option would be just under seven per cent more expensive than the base case (using a mixture of in-house and contracted suppliers). Nevertheless, it proposed that the partnership approach would more than justify the modest additional cost, in terms of transfer of risk, business continuity, flexibility and responsiveness to future IS/IT delivery.

  With hindsight, outside events and other factors have made these original goals seem somewhat optimistic.

(c)  The purpose of the "merger reserve" identified in your report and accounts (see Annex 4)

  The merger reserve represents the "assets" transferred for the merged body (The Countryside Agency) from the Rural Development Commission (RDC). This brings onto the books of the new merged body the value of the business taken on from the RDC as part of its merger with the Countryside Commission to form the Countryside Agency. We have made the note clearer in the 2000/01 accounts, which I have now signed off.

  I hope you find this additional information useful. If you have any further queries, please do let me know.

Chief Executive

Countryside Agency

16 January 2001

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